Last Friday, we improvised a parlor game during a visit to Sarah's parents’ house. They've got tons of books on California history, including a gem called California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names by one Erwin Gudde, a Cal professor and friend of Sarah's fam. There wasn't much "game" to the game; someone shouted out a city or county or river name, and then we all offered theories about its origin before flipping to its entry in the book and reading aloud. A sample. Yosemite:
From the Southern Sierra Miwok yohhe' meti or yosse' meti [meaning] "they are killers," derived from yoohu- [meaning] "to kill," evidently a name given to the Indians of the valley by those outside it … Edwin Sherman claimed discovery of the valley in the spring of 1850, naming it "The Devil's Cellar." In March of 1851, it was entered by the Mariposa Battalion and named at the suggestion of LH Bunnell: "I then proposed that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated."
There's so much information in here that it's hard to know where to start, but (1) Yes, majestic wilderness should be called things like "they are killers." This should be a requirement for any place that is rugged and majestic and awe-inspiring. What words can match landscapes like these? Those that involve violent death, for starters. (2) I can guess at why were the Indians leaving, "perhaps never to return," but this seems like a detail that should be, say, expanded. (3) The "y" at the end, for my money, makes more sense. It was replaced by an "e" in 1852 by a Lt. Tredwell Moore. No explanation is given as to why; the implication is, why not? More on Yosemite here, but the whole book is pretty great.